Phallos, which came out last year (2004), is the most recently published novel by Samuel R. Delany. It’s a short work — a mere 95 pages — dense, playful, and delightful. The blurb on the back of the book calls it “a Lacanian riddle to delight,” and that isn’t far wrong.
Delany’s Phallos takes the form of a summary/synopsis/commentary, on the Web of a gay porn novel called Phallos, set in ancient Rome and apparently written in the 1960s, that is out of print and very difficult to find. So I guess it could be called meta-pornography: it’s a pornographic narrative that is only presented indirectly, through all the screens of a somewhat unreliable narrator choosing excerpts, and discussing issues of provenance and textual details about a book that (of course) only exists inside the book we are actually reading. As a result of this strategy, also, the copious sex of the pornographic narrative is not explicitly described on the page in any great detail, but mostly just alluded to. The book is allied, therefore, to Delany’s other sexual narratives (Hogg, Equinox, and The Mad Man) but in a reduced (in size and scope) and considerably more indirect manner.
This indirection is of course the point of the book, which is a book about the phallus of Freudian/Lacanian theory, the signifier of desire, and of erotic (& masculine) potency, but which (as a mere signifier) is always absent, or other than itself. The phallus in Phallos is both the unavailable, and only indirectly narrated, pornographic narrative itself, and also (within that distanced, non-present narrative) the missing male organ of an obscure god (or more precisely, of a statue or idol of an obscure god) whose absence, or quality of being missing, circulates through the narrative, and is the “absent cause” of its repetitions, permutations, and deviations.
Describing Delany’s novel in this way, however accurate, also sells it short, because it makes it sound as if the book were just an allegorization, or an “illustration,” of a philosophical idea: which it is not; because Phallos is not exhausted by its allegorical or ideational nature. This is because it is an affectively powerful work (with an intensity that is both playful and emotionally deep and compelling, if not — for me, at least, as a heterosexual reader — directly arousing). You might say that the novel embodies the absence, the non-identity, the simulacral emptying-out of virility, that is its subject: if embodying something non-present (if not quite a “lack” in orthodox Lacanian terms either) is not too much of an oxymoron.
Actually, the most accurate categorization would probably be to say that Phallos is a philosophical novel (or novella), in precisely the sense that Voltaire’s Candide and Diderot’s Bijoux indiscrets and Jacques le fataliste, together with other 18th century fictional works by Sade and others, are philosophical novels. It’s a work of speculation, and even of wisdom — but one in which the thought is carried by narrative, rather than by theoretical argument. It touches on metaphysical issues, having to do with the nature of selfhood and of desire; but ultimately it is a book about how to live.
The absence that is the phallus/phallos means that desire is never sated by total satisfaction, but always awakened again; that life necessarily implies a certain degree of loss, disappointment, and unfulfillment. The phallus, therefore, always implies change and becoming, without the possibility of attaining a final state of peace: it is “that signification itself by which something else always molds us toward something better — or sometimes, something worse — than what we already are” (77). Desire is never entirely realized — there is no utopia or nirvana — but nonetheless “desire is as endlessly unquenchable as it is repeatable” (62).The novel — or, rather, the novel within the novel, indirectly refracted to is — is filled with orgies and all sorts of sexual extremity; but (as has been the case in some of Delany’s earlier works (and as I have previously noted with regard to his Times Square Red, Times Square Blue) this sex is not presented as transgressive: rather it’s seen as a rather civilized way of negotiating the delights and disappointments, opportunities and limitations, of life. There may be a “lack” at the center of desire; but (sexual) variety is literally the spice of a life of desire, and does not contradict, but supplements a main sexual and partnering relationship that is secure and lasting; as Neoptolomus, the hero of the novel-within-the-novel, reflects at one point (not too far from the end), “with such variety [of sexual experiences and pleasures] it becomes hard to hold on to where that lack lies, since that absent center moves about so: If I have learned anything in this time, is that losing track of it, in such a secure relationship, is surely the closest we can come to filling it” (75). I’m not sure if this difficult pronouncement is sufficiently clear apart from its context in the narrative; but it does express a kind of pragmatic utopianism, if I can dare to use such an oxymoronic phrase, that does not make its point, or achieve its hope, at the price of ignoring change and loss — though it is a perspective that is scarcely intelligible or admissible within contemporary American social, political, religious, and psychological discourse, and in fact serves as a terrible condemnation of the wretchedness of mainstream America’s hopes and fears today.
I’ll stop there, though Phallos, for all its brevity, is so rich and (indeed) inspiring a text that it calls out for a more extended, as well as less muddled, appreciation than I have been able to provide here.